A Vatican leader on child protection did not advise a negligent German bishop to remain in office, the bishop’s spokesman said Wednesday, despite the bishop’s recent suggestion to the contrary.
“In conversation with Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, Father Hans Zollner spoke neither for nor against the bishop's resignation,” Thomas Arzner, a spokesman for the Diocese of Osnabrück, Germany, told The Pillar Oct. 5.
The diocese responded to questions from The Pillar after a Sept. 22 press conference at which Bode, who was found to have mishandled abuse allegations against priests, said he had consulted with Fr. Zollner, a Vatican expert on child abuse, before deciding not to resign from diocesan leadership.
The bishop’s reference to Zollner was widely taken to imply that the priest had endorsed Bode’s decision to remain in office, despite scandal surrounding his episcopal leadership.
Bode’s decision not to resign came as a surprise in Germany, and was criticized by some Church reform advocates, after a report on the history of clerical sexual abuse found that Bode had left clerics accused of abuse in office, or appointed them to positions that gave them opportunity to commit new crimes.
“In the first decades of his term of office, Bishop Bode repeatedly left accused persons in their offices, even those whose danger could hardly be doubted, or appointed them to offices that made further opportunities for committing crimes possible, e.g. as assistant and parish administrator, or even entrusted them with leadership tasks in youth pastoral care,” said a 600-page independent investigation report, which was commissioned by the diocese and published by Osnabrück University Sept. 20.
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Two days after the report was published, Bode acknowledged that he had made “serious mistakes” and “acted negligently in some cases,” but said “it was never done with the intention of deliberately covering up or bending the law.”
The bishop asked “forgiveness from all those who have suffered even more than they had already because of my errors and omissions; also from all those who have been disappointed by my actions.”
But he also insisted that he would not resign - claiming that he remains in the best position to reform his diocese - and told reporters that he had consulted with Zollner before making his decision.
Zollner, a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, is director of a Vatican-supported institute on clerical sexual abuse at the Gregorian University in Rome. He has been widely perceived as an advocate for serious ecclesial reform in the wake of recent sexual abuse and cover-up scandals.
Bode’s press conference implication - that Zollner had supported his decision - came as a shock to many Church watchers, especially since Zollner has called for more German bishops to resign over reports similar to the one which found Bode negligent.
For his part, Zollner told The Pillar late last month that he was unable to discuss his private conversation with the bishop, but said that Bode should be able to offer a summary of what they had discussed.
The bishop’s spokesman then confirmed that Zollner had not actually advised Bode to remain in office, despite the bishop's Sept. 22 suggestion to the contrary.
While planning to remain in office, Bode has announced new measures to improve the handling of abuse cases in his diocese, which he has promised to oversee.
“I want to be measured by this commitment,” Bode told journalists last month.
Bode was elected deputy chairman of the German bishops’ conference in 2017 and is one of four members of a committee overseeing the country’s controversial “synodal way,” which is presented as a response to a devastating clerical abuse crisis in Germany.
The bishop has gained international attention for his support of female deacons and blessings for same-sex couples.
Several German dioceses have already published final reports on their handling of historical abuse cases, including the Archdiocese of Cologne, the Archdiocese of Munich and Freiberg, and the Diocese of Münster.
Other dioceses have commissioned reports, such as the Diocese of Essen, the Archdiocese of Freiburg, the Diocese of Mainz, the Diocese of Passau, and the Diocese of Trier.
Senior German bishops have offered their resignations to Pope Francis in the past two years, often following criticism of their handling of abuse cases. They include Hamburg Archbishop Stefan Heße, Cologne Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, and Munich Cardinal Reinhard Marx. The pope has so far declined to accept the resignations.
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